Optimists with Guns

San Leandro sports one of the last venues for target practice.


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The San Leandro Rifle & Pistol Range.

Photo by Jeff Schoenhard

Jeff Torre, a volunteer at the Optimist Club of San Leandro, bolted out of his booth and gave a clueless young man with a gun a tongue lashing about being careless. “You in the orange shirt! Put your weapon back behind the yellow line!”

The first-timer had made a classic rookie mistake: He picked up his rifle and walked with it over to his gun bag rather than the other way around.

“Would you like it if I pointed my gun at you?” Torre shouted, more than a little sternly.

The embarrassed visitor, not an Optimist yet, nodded sheepishly and carefully returned behind the line to disassemble his weapon.

This is a typical scene at the San Leandro Rifle & Pistol Range, operated by the Optimist Club as a fundraiser for local charities, for most of the last 60 years. A set of old, converted barracks from the ’50s, now riddled with bullet holes, marks the site of the city’s oldest range. Nestled at the foot of Oyster Bay Regional Shoreline, adjacent to a sewage treatment plant, the place looks a lot like so many forgotten industrial areas that line the East Bay.

Indeed, with the closure last year of the Chabot Gun Club in nearby Castro Valley and with the advent of San Leandro’s new tech center and the city’s hip new venues, the San Leandro Rifle & Pistol Range feels as if it’s a relic from a bygone era. It occupies a kind of place where you’d expect to see an artists’ warehouse or a Burning Man sculpture studio. The perpetual 7-foot tall pillar of flame from the methane gas burn-off pipe next door doesn’t hurt the effect, either.

But the Optimist Club isn’t only for the older generation. It features a popular Ladies Night (Wednesday), a Pink Pistols LGBTQ group, and a Junior Optimist Rifle Club that includes kids from wide range of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. And from all appearances, the target range seems to be thriving.

The Optimist Club itself started in 1944 in the throes of World War II as a way to promote civic pride and engagement, not to mention a healthy fighting spirit, through boxing leagues, a junior rifle team, parades, and just about anything else that people got excited about.

Since then, the public range has become a community center of sorts, and its proceeds go to the numerous charities the Optimist Club supports, from Girls Inc. to Meals on Wheels to Children’s Fairyland.

For people unfamiliar with shooting ranges, the first thing you notice is not just the ear-piercing blast of a tool invented for killing things, but the subtle concussive thud to the chest that comes along with it, like a small hiccup everyone has at once. Each hiccup underscores the power unleashed with a bullet.

“Rule No. 1 of gun safety is you only ever point your gun at something you intend to destroy,” said gun enthusiast Brandon Quan, who estimates he has shot enough over the years that he could make a life-sized sculpture of himself with the spent lead.

The second thing you notice is how hard it is to actually hit anything. Hitting an 8-inch-wide target just 15 feet away in broad daylight, both you and it standing perfectly still, is a surprisingly difficult task. Quan noticed more bullet holes in his target than he shot. “That’s probably from those guys,” he said, gesturing toward the next lane over. It gives you a healthy dose of sympathy for the poor storm troopers of the Star Wars movies, who definitely get a bad rap. The broad side of a barn is smaller than you think.

Still, some of the Optimists here have managed to get quite good at it. One teenage girl, 14-year-old Anusha Pakkam, has qualified to train with the U.S. Olympic sharpshooting team, and hopes to compete in 2020. Sixteen-year-old Eric Vasquez shot with the Mexican National team before immigrating with his family to San Leandro.

“Our members and customers are a reflection of our community,” said Treasurer Kevin Ray. “We have the same racial, gender, and socioeconomic makeup as the rest of our beautiful part of California.”

Club Director Al Tyner put it another way: “I don’t care who walks through that door. Size, shape, religion, anything. As long as they want to shoot and they want to get along, I welcome them.” The Second Amendment, he pointed out, applies to everybody.

Indeed, on a Friday night meet-up of the kids’ group, the Junior Optimist Rifle Club, the kids look like they walked out of a diversity promotional poster. There are black kids, white kids, Asian kids, Latino kids, and a 50-50 mix of boys and girls shooting .22 rifles and air rifles (the ammo is cheaper, and allowances aren’t what they used to be). Perhaps paradoxically, the one thing that all the kids say when asked why they like target shooting is how calm and meditative it is. You need deep focus and a steady hand. It’s a break from the frantic pace of other sports, and teenage life in general. A big part of the training, in fact, is deep relaxation exercises.

“We shoot in full gear. To warm up, I do breathing while I’m getting into my pants, boots, jacket,” said Teddy Buchanan, a 16-year-old girl who switched from gymnastics to shooting.

“You’ve got to clear your mind and focus on your breath,” said Alannah Roberts, 14, looking down at a target 50 feet away.

At that distance, you can’t see rings of the target. At least, anyone with eyes over 35 years old can’t. The widest ring is only about as wide as the mouth of a shot glass, and there are nine rings inside that. I give it a try, but can’t tell if I’ve hit the target till I bring it back to the front. Apparently I have managed to hit near the center of one of the targets, but not the one I was aiming for. Alannah’s target has a tight cluster of overlapping holes near the center. She has a competition the next day and is trying to get some last-minute practice.

As real estate becomes more and more expensive, it will become increasingly harder to maintain optimism about keeping up old Bay Area institutions like this. For now, though, the eternal flame burns bright over the range. Adults socialize, and smiling kids practice hitting targets. The people who run the San Leandro Rifle & Pistol Range are card-carrying Optimists, after all, and don’t seem worried about whether a gun range has a place in the social fabric of the ever- changing Bay Area.

 

Published online March 28, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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